On Offense (Free Speech and The Right to be Wrong)

When I first discovered the online skeptic movement, I was thrilled. A community of people devoting themselves to rationalism—to actively opposing fallacious reasoning and cognitive biases for the noble goal of maximizing truth? I am unequivocally on board with these ideals, and on the whole, the skeptic movement tends to be far better than average in its approach to scientific reasoning. “Better than average,” however, still is not perfect, and the unfortunate reality is that even skeptics fail to exercise critical thinking at times.

There is a distressingly common trend, even among self-styled rationalists, where empty rhetoric is parroted in lieu of rational argument, disregarding the entirety of what someone says if it contains elements that run counter to the former person’s malformed ideals. This runs entirely counter to the expressly stated goals of skepticism. Free speech is one such recurring example. There are those who say that freedom of speech is absolute—that imposing any restrictions on the content or context of someone’s speech is uniformly a violation of that person’s rights. This is, of course, demonstrably false, yet the claim persists. “Free speech” is a nuanced concept, and holding it up as if it were some immaculate, unconditional virtue is the polar opposite of rationality: it is perhaps even dogmatism, that unholy grail of skepticism sins, and those who would have you believe it to be absolute and axiomatic would ask you to surrender your reasoning capacities in favor of their hollow ideology.

♦ ♦ ♦

I have more than once encountered the hyperbolic argument that moderating any discussion for a purpose other than filtering out criminal content is antithetical to the principles of critical thinking. (And yes, Godwin is often invoked.) This position is untenable in reality, for a discussion of higher-level concepts must be permitted to move beyond the rudimentary if any progress is to be made—we cannot, for example, ascertain the accuracy of group selection or punctuated equilibrium if creationist ideologues are permitted to control the conversation by derailing every biology discussion with charges that evolution is a “lie from hell.” We recognize that when we have a goal in mind, we have to at some point employ some kind of gatekeeping process through which non-constructive contributions are filtered out. This is the express purpose of peer-reviewed academic journals. Thus, when a person espouses such absolutist free speech rhetoric, what they are arguing against is not censorship but rather scientific progress—they are implicitly rejecting the notion of knowledge being cumulative.

Another often problematic meme is that there does not exist a right not to be offended. Stephen Fry encapsulates this concept well:

It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that.” As it that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more than a whine. “I find that offensive.” It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I am offended by that.” Well, so fucking what.

–Stephen Fry

On its face, this is quite true. There is no right not to be offended, but this platitude, when used as a rhetorical conversation-stopper, is nothing more than a red herring*. In the same sense that you do have a right to uncritically accept shallow falsehoods or commit logical fallacies, you also have a right to cause offense. However, if you wish to be a rationalist, you should not mindlessly exercise these rights, and you should especially not use them as a pretext for intellectual dishonesty.

When we consider Stephen Fry’s “so fucking what,” it is a mistake to apply it as a rote dismissal of all offense. This comment was, after all, delivered in the context of a religious person’s offense over having their religion criticized. Rather, we should interpret it more generally as a question—as urging us to ask, “yes, I see you’re offended, but why are you offended?” If we are to make intellectual progress, we must address the reasoning behind that offense—we must confront that which causes it.

Fundamentally, we can not allow ourselves to use this right to cause offense as a rationalization for committing an ad hominem fallacy, whereby a person’s arguments are dismissed simply because the person making them has expressed offense. If those arguments are unsound, let our responses address that unsoundness. Wasting time whining about the tone of those arguments, rather than their actual substance, is unproductive and insulting.

This defense of “there is no right not to be offended, so I should be able to say whatever I want however I want,” especially in response to perceived calls for “political correctness,” is all too often nothing more than the speaker’s attempt to deprive those who disagree with the content of that speech the right to criticize it. Free-speech-is-black-and-white zealots† take note: the right to offend and the right to commit logical fallacies are equivalent—you do, in fact, have these rights, but you do not have any sort of entitlement to respect for doing either, and when you regurgitate this platitude to dismiss an argument, you are simultaneously invoking both. The same right to free speech that allows you to do those things also allows your audience to criticize you for doing so.

It must be said that causing offense is sometimes necessary. In cases where rational discourse is impossible, causing offense to bring attention to discrimination may very well be the only tool that will work to spur an open, honest discussion of the problem. (What civil rights movement has ever been ushered in simply through dispassionate, academic pleas for equality? “Politeness” is only a part of a larger toolbox.) Does that mean being willfully offensive is the appropriate strategy in every case? Clearly not. It is therefore entirely insufficient to trot out the old canard of “you have no right not to be offended” as if this could somehow adequately be substituted for a rational argument‡. If we wish to have a productive conversation about serious issues, we must then be willing to discuss the degrees to which offense may be justified―for both the offense-causer and offense-taker.

The most obvious form of speech over which offense-taking is appropriate is that which causes harm. For example: lying to cause a public panic, libel and slander, inciting violence (you know, the illegal kinds of speech)―these things are obvious instances of things that we are under no obligation to tolerate. The negative real-world consequences they bring are easy to see, so there is no reason to offer these forms of speech either legal or normative protections.

But not every case of harmful speech will be immediately identifiable as such to a third-party. An apparently innocuous utterance can become a dire threat when delivered by an abuser to their victim—it is impossible to divorce connotational meaning from words, and not every connotation is created equal (this is why arguments like “cracker is as bad as other racist slurs” fail utterly). Seeking to artificially constrain ourselves to dictionary definitions, which are themselves inherently flawed§, is to fallaciously assume that the context in which speech occurs has no bearing on that speech’s meaning. Should we thus seek to erode the freedom of speech by forbidding (either legally or socially) anything that could conceivably carry harmful connotations? This too is untenable, for that would leave us with a lexicon containing literally zero words. Furthermore, the goal is not (and should not be) to sanitize all social interactions of any possible semblance of offensiveness.

We must accept that not all offense is equal in degree and justification. If you steal my car, I will be (among other things) offended. When a theist says “your nonbelief is offensive to me,” this offense is of an entirely different sort. The distinction is one of harm―by depriving me of my property, you have unambiguously hurt me, and that immediate deprivation also has future ramifications (I must spend additional time with the police, I may miss appointments or work, etc.). Compare this with the theist’s offense: does my nontheism cause harm, be it proximal or distal? No. Thus, the former offense is justified, and the latter is not.

This is the pivotal distinction when gauging offense: offense offered as a response to something which causes no harm is to be dismissed as irrational. While there may be no right not to be offended, there is a right not to be harmed, and offense stemming from harmful circumstances is to be respected and those harms discussed rationally. As with free speech, refusing to acknowledge this is the refusal to engage one’s critical faculties.

When people complain about “political correctness,” they almost uniformly do so without regard for the potential harm that some “politically incorrect” speech has. The reason it’s not socially acceptable to say racist things is that racism is harmful. When you see someone you think is urging “political correctness,” then, it is important to ascertain what they’re actually saying, especially since attempting to refute an argument you don’t understand is intellectually dishonest at best. For example, are they saying that something you don’t see as problematic is racist? Racist jokes, a common target of the so-called “PC-police,” serve to normalize discrimination, essentially perpetuating racism even if the speaker isn’t necessarily “a racist.” These things add up to compose a culture of everyday racism, so what may seem like “just a joke” to you may very well have real-world consequences. Sexist narratives “can promote the behavioral release of prejudice against women.” And this doesn’t just hold for racism and sexism, as “[b]y making light of the expression of prejudice, disparagement humor communicates a message of tacit approval or tolerance of discrimination against members of the targeted group.” Passive-aggressive microaggressions contribute to a toxic, unwelcoming atmosphere for members of the targeted minority group.

Even if there were no empirically measurable effect on discrimination as a result of saying these “politically incorrect” things, the perception they create in their audience||—namely that members of these groups are unwelcome, especially if they speak out against them—is itself a negative consequence. Is the offense that may arise as a result of these consequences truly equivalent to that of the theist whose scriptures are interpreted to justify a belief that atheism itself is a moral affront? No, and to treat these things as if they were is fallacious. We can dismiss mere offense, but offense arising as a result of harm is not mere offense. It is ultimately harm that campaigns for “political correctness” seek to ameliorate, not offense, and I can think of no person better suited to refute the vacuous suggestion that words are harmless and inoffensive than Stephen Fry himself:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always hurt me.

Bones mend and become actually stronger in the very place they were broken and where they have knitted up; mental wounds can grind and ooze for decades and be re-opened by the quietest whisper.

—Stephen Fry

It’s not really that complicated, is it?

I am offended by atheism?” Too damn bad. “I am offended by racism?” Sorry assholes, that one sticks.

(Edit: 1/20/2013)

Miriam at Brute Reason has written an article titled The Supposed Virtue of Not Being Offended, and you should read it. In it, she references stereotype threat, which I simply cannot believe I didn’t think to include here:

Microaggressions can actually have pervasive negative effects on people, and research backs this up. They activate stereotype threat, which is a process in which people underperform based on stereotypes about their race or gender when those stereotypes are made salient for them.

(End edit.)

* Especially when it’s given as a response to “you shouldn’t say that” as opposed to “you shouldn’t be allowed to say that,” which is pretty much always.
† Mindless adherence to the ill-formed misrepresentation of free speech is often lovingly mocked through references to “freeze peach.” Never confuse it for the real thing.
‡ Please note my wording. The concept of substitution is key here.
§ I have previously touched briefly upon dictionaries, though this doesn’t address the problem in great detail.
|| Not uniformly, of course. No group is a monolith, so you can naturally find some members of (minority group) who think jokes made at the expense of (minority group) are funny. The availability of someone who doesn’t object to a thing is not an appropriate standard for judging that thing (a.k.a. “anecdotes are not data,” see also selection bias, potentially appeal to authority).

16 responses to “On Offense (Free Speech and The Right to be Wrong)

  1. “I am offended by atheism?” Too damn bad. “I am offended by racism?” Sorry assholes, that one sticks.’

    I disagree. Saying you’re offended by something I said is like saying you don’t like what I wear. Too bad, so sad. I’m under no obligation to make my words and actions conform to your preferences I believe the distinction you should be making is that evil things should be disdained. If I say or do something wrong, I am guilty. But saying “I feel offended” is patently useless. What am I then supposed to say “Oh, I’m sorry. If my actions offend you, I must be doing something wrong. I live only to please you.”

    Frankly, there’s no such thing as freedom of speech. The government simply declares that you are free to say certain things but not others. That is: “You are free to say whatever you like unless it is one of these things…”. Basically, you are free to say whatever you like, but you are not free to say whatever you like. The statement is self refuting.

    So, let’s drop the freedom of speech garbage and just say; “you are free to say things that conform with these rules…”. The government defines the rules (afterall, rules must be made by someone and there’s no one with authority higher than the govt) and everybody does as they are told. Or they rebel. Whatever.

    There is a distressingly common trend, even among self-styled rationalists, where empty rhetoric is parroted in lieu of rational argument, disregarding the entirety of what someone says if it contains elements that run counter to the former person’s malformed ideals.

    BREAKING NEWS: Human beings are inconsistent. Who would have guessed?

  2. Saying you’re offended by something I said is like saying you don’t like what I wear. Too bad, so sad.

    Sure, I agree for the most part, but when someone says “I’m offended” following something that actually causes harm (“evil things”), the response of “too bad, so sad” should itself be disdained. Discriminatory speech is not equivalent to “your shoes are ugly.”

    What am I then supposed to say “Oh, I’m sorry. If my actions offend you, I must be doing something wrong. I live only to please you.”

    Almost. I think “Why did that offend you?” is an excellent response, and including an apology may be a good idea, depending on the circumstances. As a reflexive reply any time someone says you’ve offended them? Of course not, but for people with valid reasons, sure. (It’s not like apologizing is a big deal. Doesn’t cost you anything, but it buys civility.)

    Frankly, there’s no such thing as freedom of speech. The government simply declares that you are free to say certain things but not others.

    No rights exist except as delineated by social contract, so while there is no platonic form of free speech, there are legal freedoms of speech. Probably 95% of the time online (unless you’re talking about China or what have you), “freedom of speech” is just a red herring, though. Too many discussions of appropriate speech are bogged down by equivocations and distractions about legal freedoms of speech, so it’s probably helpful to distinguish between the two. I don’t think the government should be interfering with offensive speech, but deliberately offending shouldn’t be seen as socially appropriate by default. I do think a government should implement proportionate measures to curtail harmful speech, but that’s got nothing to do with moderating youtube comments and whatnot.

    BREAKING NEWS: Human beings are inconsistent. Who would have guessed?

    Pretty much sums it up perfectly, doesn’t it? Answering the rhetorical question anyway, far fewer “smart people” than I’d like. It’s not particularly rare for people who call themselves “skeptics” to think themselves above such petty human foibles. They often aspire to be Straw Vulcans, you see.

  3. Tracy: I completely agree with your first paragraph but equally, completely disagree with your second and third ones

    No one is responsible for their emotions other than themselves, no matter how much they may have been provoked or manipulated by someone else. So if someone is offended by something I say, that is their choice. It is not mine. I am only responsible for my emotions, not those of anyone else

    You say there is no such thing as free speech but there are only two limitations on what you can say: one is language and the other is imagination. And both of these are limitations pertaining to individual capability and not impositions from society. And also, they can be modified or improved. But other than those, you have zero limit on what you can say. Now you may self censor, but that is a restriction you are placing on yourself. It is not being placed on you by a third party, such as the government for example. Certainly, if you break a law pertaining to free speech you will suffer the consequences if found guilty. But that does not prevent you from having the freedom to break that law in the first place however

    Oh and yes, of course human beings are inconsistent – and irrational and emotional and subjective – and any other adjective you can think of, pertaining to that aspect of our character. Though I think it unwise to offer that as an excuse for bad behaviour however, Stating it as a fact is fine, stating it as a justification is not

  4. No one is responsible for their emotions other than themselves, no matter how much they may have been provoked or manipulated by someone else.

    Nonsense. If I directly provoke you, that is an active choice on my part. You are not responsible for what I do to you.

    So if someone is offended by something I say, that is their choice. It is not mine.

    You are assuming offense is a choice. I’d like to see evidence for this claim.

  5. No, I am not responsible for what you do – or say – to me, but I am responsible for how I react however. Emotional responses may sometimes appear spontaneous but this is actually untrue. The cognitive process involved merely happens so quickly that it appears to be so. But even if only one emotion can be referenced at a particular moment in time, one still has a choice in how that emotion manifests itself. Nothing therefore is automatic no matter how it may appear. To suggest otherwise would be to absolve humans of responsibility for their actions. And this applies just as much whether one is giving offence or taking offence

  6. Emotional responses may sometimes appear spontaneous but this is actually untrue.

    Evidence, please. I’ll grant that we’re capable of exercising some degree of control over our emotions–some more or less than others, and not to a uniform degree across all emotions and contexts. Here’s a basic consideration of the matter on Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ambigamy/201006/total-control-vs-no-control-theory-emotions-can-you-control-your-emotions-or-no

    The cognitive process involved merely happens so quickly that it appears to be so.

    So if emotional responses result from cognitive processes that happen too quickly to reach conscious awareness, how exactly are emotional responses a conscious choice?

    Your reasoning there is not clear to me. What is clear to me is that a person who provokes someone does so as the result of a choice. Behaviors require will to enact. Emotions do not–they come unbidden (though yes, we are not mere observers to our own emotional states).

    Nothing therefore is automatic no matter how it may appear.

    This is magical thinking. It’s mind-over-matter woo. The human body really does contain autonomic functions. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomic_nervous_system)

    People do have the ability to change their emotional response to a given stimulus, but this is part of a larger cognitive therapy process that can take years. It certainly cannot be learned in the span of time between someone provoking you and your reflexive response to that provocation.

    To suggest otherwise would be to absolve humans of responsibility for their actions.

    Nonsense. Suggesting that people aren’t in complete control of their bodies is good science. There is no moral responsibility for things we cannot control, and you have not demonstrated that people have the level of control over their emotions that you suggest. What you’re claiming is not borne out in reality.

    It is ableism to argue that because you have some degree of control over your emotional reactions, that means everyone else does or should, too. “If you spend a significant portion of your life learning to exercise more control over your emotions, you can learn not to react to people who try to provoke you” is not an excuse for absolving someone of responsibility for being an asshole to other people.

  7. Although I may reference an argument in general terms, in actuality, I am only referring to myself. How others behave is beyond my jurisdiction. So if someone is being an arsehole – to use your terminology – to someone else, it is for the taker to educate the giver here. I would prefer not to get involved. I realise this does not translate seamlessly to reality, but I use it as a general rule, nonetheless. There are two reasons for this: firstly, intervention may actually escalate the situation, making it worse, and secondly, I do not have the moral authority to tell others how to behave. So I try as much as possible to avoid unnecessary confrontation with others, especially where I myself am not directly involved in it. I do not expect others to do likewise. They can behave how they choose. This is just how I do so. My own moral philosophy is taken from the Golden Rule. I do not expect the whole world to agree with it but it works for me, and that is what matters. If others reference an alternative, then fine. I am not here to convert the planet to my way of thinking. My modus operandi is to be a good human being, and all that that entails. What others do with their lives is for them and not me, to decide. However, I am more than happy to have anything I believe in questioned or challenged, and absolutely so, too. It is, for me now, the only way to greater understanding of what it means to be human. It is also an ongoing journey too. I will never be perfect, but I would like to think that I become less imperfect over time. But even so, there is still plenty to be done. I am, after all, an eternal work in progress

  8. So if someone is being an arsehole – to use your terminology – to someone else, it is for the taker to educate the giver here.

    My own moral philosophy is taken from the Golden Rule

    This also seems inconsistent. You’re suggesting that if someone were being abusive towards you, you would want simply to be left to that person’s devices? You would want to receive no help to fix the situation?

    Where’s the empathy? Heck, where’s the sympathy? I don’t think staying silent and expecting a victim, alone, to “educate” their abuser is behavior befitting a moral human being.

  9. You are only referencing this from a general perspective, so it is not possible to deal in specifics now. But it is not a given that I would automatically need third party help in a situation where someone was being abusive now. I would try to resolve it as best I could without outside intervention at first but if that failed, then I would have no choice. But in reality, the chances of this actually happening are next to zero, as I deliberately avoid human contact anyway

    But that aside, I do not like confrontation anyway, so getting involved in situations that have nothing to do with me, is very uncharacteristic. If it was absolutely necessary, then I would become involved. But anything other than that and I would have to consider the alternatives. My justification for this is twofold: firstly, I do not want to become angry, for anger is – for me – something to be avoided at all costs. It is of no use whatsoever. Secondly, I want to be as invisible as possible. Therefore drawing attention to myself is undesirable. I would much rather not have to. Partly because of anxiety and partly because of self preservation

  10. But it is not a given that I would automatically need third party help in a situation where someone was being abusive now.

    Of course it’s not, but by what standard do you arbitrate “need” here? And is advocating for only giving help when it is necessarily needed (as opposed to simply preferred) really something you want to do?

    I do not like confrontation anyway, so getting involved in situations that have nothing to do with me, is very uncharacteristic. If it was absolutely necessary, then I would become involved.

    Is this really in keeping with your Golden Rule standard? If you wanted help with something you considered serious, would you want the rest of society only intervening if it were “absolutely” necessary?

  11. This is all hypothetical so it is difficult to give anything but hypothetical answers. I suppose there would be situations where I would want help where it was preferable, as opposed to necessary. But where to draw the line between what is preferable and not preferable and / or necessary and not necessary? I cannot be specific about this unfortunately. In an ideal world one would never require help. Now we do not live in an ideal world, but I avoid putting myself into situations where help might be required anyway This is not a conscious decision on my part now, rather just the way it is. I am not saying that I will never need help, but the best one can do is to minimise the possibility of needing it in the first place, which is what I do

  12. I don’t care for using “necessary” as a standard there at all. I think we should help each other out long before it becomes desperate enough to use that label. An ounce of prevention and all that.

  13. Right wingers and boorish people will sometimes will ridicule legitimate concerns or ideas as ‘political correctness’. However, I think there are legitimate concerns about political correctness. When properly identified, “political correctness” basically refers to unreasonable or irrational ideas about what might be considered offensive.

    An example of an illegitimate charge of political correctness would be applying the term to objections to use of the N-word. That isn’t being “politically correct”, because is not unreasonable or irrational to take offense at the N-word.

    However, I once had a college professor who I objected strenuously and emotionally to the use of the term “black hole” to described collapsed stars from which light cannot escape because, it was asserted, the term was racist (because of the term “black”?), sexist (uh, the term “hole”?), and most inexplicably, homophobic (still have no idea why this would be). That incident was so absurd that to this day most people I recount it too laugh and assume I’m joking (I’m not).

    It also often involves applying different moral standards to different groups. I remember almost twenty years ago now when the OJ Simpson case first erupted, there was a spokesperson for a feminist organization on the Larry King show and for about ten minutes had been discussing the Simpson case as an example of sexism and violence towards women, and clearly assuming Simpson was guilty. My point is not to suggest otherwise, but what stuck with me was when they started taking phone calls, the first caller was a self described black male who saw the case as a racist frame up of OJ, denigrating Nicole Brown Simpson as a gold digger in the process who “deserved what she got”. Incredibly, the staunch feminist suddenly seemed at a loss for words and sheepishly agreed with the caller (or at least pretended to).

    THAT was, I think, a case of genuine is politically correctness. Her feminist narrative went out the window the moment a black caller suggested it was a racist conspiracy against OJ rather than an instance of male violence against women. Her position was not determined by the facts of the case but by what was the most ‘correct’ position in terms of identity politics.

    I think people on the left make a mistake when they attempt to deny that there are genuine instances of political correctness (i.e. of irrational or unreasonable charges of racism or sexism or homophobia). It isn’t really a phenomenon that plagues only the left; rather, the phenomenon tends only to be derided as “political correctness” when it occurs on the left. I think for example when people on the right excuse Israeli actions against Palestinians and attempt to dismiss supporters of Palestinians as “anti-Semitic” (curious accusation considering Palestinians are Semites), the same thing is happening; we just don’t call it “political correctness”. It is also ‘politically correct’ on the right to deny evolution and climate change – but we don’t cal, it that. The solution is not to pretend PC doesn’t exist, but to call it for what it is when it is on all points on the political spectrum.

    It seems to me that certain people have a deep need to feel morally superior to others; to point the finger of self-righteous indignation and shout “Sinner!” (on the religious right) or “Racist!” (on the identity politics left).

    I realize this is somewhat tangential the main thrust of the OP but this whole phenomenon of “political correctness” and the way the term is used and abused is one I have long found… interesting.

    You should post more; I like the way you appear to openly challenge and examine your own views, publicly. Cool.

  14. Pingback: Lessons from #AtheismPlus | Reality Enthusiast

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